What joy! The Keeper’s House has opened at the Royal Academy of Arts, and it is simply lovely. Many people would not have even been aware of the existence of this 19th-century town house. But now, this appendage to Burlington House has two restaurants, a bar, a lounge and a secret garden. It sets out to be ‘a space infused with the sensibility of art and artists’.
Upstairs feels traditional. The refurbished Sir Hugh Casson and Belle Shenkman Rooms (a restaurant and lounge) are decorated in a tasteful palette of cream and pear green. There is nothing surprising here, although the works of art on display are worth close inspection (amongst others, there are pieces by academicians Ken Howard, HaYoung Kim and Peter Freeth). The menu looks good, and has the stamp of Oliver Peyton all over it: pots of pressed rabbit and pickled green walnuts; a trifle of green tomatoes and Berkswell cheese; wild duck with salt baked root vegetables.
But the place’s real charm (and the reason it will almost certainly become a cherished hangout) is the basement area. Down those marble steps, you will find something that’s the complete opposite of the rest of the Royal Academy’s refinement.
The Shenkman Bar seems to reference a number of recent RA exhibitions – the Kuniyoshi exhibition back in 2009, and perhaps Anish Kapoor’s of the same year, with that sensory overload of red. Everything is black or red, which lends it a peculiar atmosphere – like being in a bento box, as imagined by Jack Vettriano. But bizarrely, it seems to work. It feels exotic, not too kitsch and the Japanese theme works well – if only because it is so unexpected.
Landscaper and Chelsea gold medalist Tom Stuart-Smith has designed the garden, and it is meant to have a ‘primeval feel’. It is a small brick-lined courtyard, which also functions as an electrical substation. Stuart-Smith described its creation as akin to an ‘excavation’ and designed the space to have an ‘almost archaeological quality’. Even the planting feels antique; some of the ferns are over 200 years old.
It’s all a bit mad – the tasteful walls upstairs, the geisha-girl bar, the primordial garden. But this is the Royal Academy paying tribute to the people who have made the place what it is. Academicians’ work peppers the walls, and their portraits line the stairwell. Important members’ names are displayed. It is a gift back to them – and up until 4pm every day, the Keeper’s House is open just for the enjoyment of its friends, patrons and academicians. After that, anyone can visit, and it is open until late.
In a time of cultural austerity, it is heartening to sense some joie de vivre in the art world. This is a place to eat, drink and be merry, spiced up with a bit of artistic sensibility.